Reagan: Messiah? Antichrist? Normal mainliner?

As a Baptist preacher's kid who grew up in Texas in the 1970s, I had plenty of reasons to reject Ronald Reagan.

That may sound strange, since the Southern Baptist Convention and the Republican Party that Reagan built now appear to be wedded at the hip. But people tend to forget that Jimmy Carter really is a Baptist. So are Al Gore, the Rev. Bill Moyers and Britney Spears, while we're at it.

People also forget that Reagan was not a Southern Baptist or even what most would call an evangelical. He grew up in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), in the Illinois heartland of mainline Protestantism.

Still, I believe it's safe to say that America's deep political divisions on moral issues are the result of three cultural earthquakes -- Woodstock, Roe vs. Wade and the Reagan revolution.

These events shaped modern Democrats as well as Republicans. They shaped religious conservatives and the growing bloc some researchers are calling the "anti-evangelical voters." And these events created or deepened cracks in most religious sanctuaries that remain today and have, if anything, only gotten worse.

Take the Southern Baptists. I believe the rise of Reagan split that massive flock of 16-million-plus believers just as much, if not more, than doctrinal debates about "biblical inerrancy."

Millions of Southern Baptists saw Reagan as a near messiah. For Southern Baptist conservatives, Reagan offered hope that the cultural revolution of the Woodstock-Roe era might in some way be overturned. They were wrong, of course.

Nevertheless, these conservative Baptists lost their historic fear of politics and jumped into the public square. But while the conservative grown-ups created the Religious Right, their children were in their multi-media bedrooms watching HBO and MTV.

The parents thought they could vote in the kingdom, but things didn't work out that way. What they got instead was "I Love the '80s."

There were some Southern Baptists who saw Reagan as the Antichrist.

I saw this close up. I had a friend in graduate school who literally lost his moderate Southern Baptist faith because of the election of Reagan. How could he believe in a just and loving God, if a Reagan could be elected president?

After all, the Reagan loyalists hated the really cool movies and they liked the really bad movies. They didn't read the proper books and magazines or laugh at the hip comics. And Reagan was embraced by all of those "fundamentalists" who wanted to ruin the Southern Baptist Convention, which they believed was poised to achieve mainline Protestant maturity.

Most of all, they believed that Reagan was dumb. And if Reagan was dumb, that meant that hating Reagan was smart. Everyone who was smart agreed. If you didn't agree, then you were dumb.

So defeating Reagan was part of voting in a smarter, more nuanced kingdom.

What these anti-Reagan Baptists and new evangelicals really needed was a progressive, smart, complex Southern Baptist in the White House -- someone like Bill Clinton. That would be perfect. But things didn't work out precisely as they imagined, either. They got "Sex & the City."

Many of them liked it. Many didn't, but the alternative was worse. The alternative was being labeled a religious conservative, the kind of person who liked Reagan.

There seemed to be no other option, no middle ground.

But perhaps Reagan wasn't a messiah or the Antichrist. What if he was just a normal mainline Protestant churchman from the 1950s?

Maybe he had good intentions and he did his best. Maybe he accomplished many things on the global level and didn't do so much on the cultural level. Maybe his beliefs were sincere, but not very specific. Maybe he made some people feel good and others feel bad. Maybe his greatest domestic political legacy is the Religious Right and the Religious Left.

But questions remain. Was Reagan truly a cultural and moral conservative? Did he cause the "pew gap" the researchers find in all the polls of modern voters? Could Reagan, if he had really tried, overturn the culture of Woodstock and Roe? Could he have helped Americans do a better job of focusing on their families? I have my doubts.

There are things that politicians cannot do.

It's a culture thing. It's a moral thing. It's a faith thing.